Joe Talbot’s directorial debut “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” is poetic, moody and accusatory. It is both a call for individuality and diversity as well as a lamenting study of the historic city. Its atmospheric montages owe a debt to Spike Lee and Barry Jenkins, yet its microscopic study of friendship has a patient rhythm unique to the director.
The story is semi-autobiographical to the lead actor, Jimmie Fails who plays a version of himself.
Although its message of resistance and survival under the threat of gentrification feels heavy-handed in sentiment, it is no less heartfelt and affecting particularly regarding friendships.
Jimmie (Fails) is a young man who works as a nurse’s aide and at the fish market with his best friend Monty (Jonathan Majors), a playwright and artist. Jimmie is eaten up because his grandfather’s historic house is now neglected bought to be possibly flipped by an upper-middle class family. Jimmie goes to the Victorian house in secret to gradually restore its grandeur, repainting trim and repairing siding, little by little to the anger of an older white woman, who pelts him with vegetables. Jimmie reluctantly leaves only to return a day later.
Soon after, the house is suddenly empty. Jimmie resolves to take ownership, reasoning that because it was built by his grandfather, he alone cares for it. As it is in the family, he believes, it belongs to him. He makes a call and has the water and electricity bills transferred.
Here is a new beginning. A city life with his friend and possibly his boyfriend, Mont.
Then, the furniture is tossed on the street about to be sold by a shark-like realtor (Finn Wittrock).
There is nothing Jimmie can do, having no assets or savings.
Danny Glover gives a strong outing as Mont’s grandpa and punk icon Jello Biafra from The Dead Kennedys is raw and visceral as a racist and condescending tour guide.
This is a striking yet pensive study of both Jimmie and Mont and the ideas they embody as creative bohemians, striving to be untainted by commerce, technology and the unstoppable march of money.
Jimmie is a living representation of the Victorian townhouse, its balustrade, its turrets and brass fittings. As he walks through town, Jimmie is eyed with suspicion and hatred by his white neighbors. Under their Anglo-Saxon eyes he is archaic and ill-fitting. Jimmie and Mont represent verbal expression and creativity, having little use for smartphones or blunt profanity. This refusal is to the dismay of Kofi (Jamal Trulove) who berates Jimmie severely about his manhood.
“The Last Black Man in San Francisco” is most potent in its final minutes. Faced with a newly remodeled mansion, Mont becomes a kind of vengeful spirit, while Jimmie vanishes under the weight of his familial memory and the dénouement is almost Shakespearean.
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